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Streamlining Machined Part-Data Collection

January 2013

Job shops looking to simplify part QC data collection might want to consider Starrett’s DataSure data system. DataSure offers a way to collect data on parts quickly and effortlessly, while also increasing traceability.

For shops with highly quality-conscious clients, or possibly about to take on such clients, this is a necessity.

Fab Shop Magazine Direct did an exclusive interview with Jeff Wilkinson, Starrett’s general manager for Starrett’s Advanced Technology Division, on the advantages and benefits of the system. Here’s what he has to say.

FSMD: How does the DataSure system work?

Wilkinson: It’s a wireless data-collection system designed for users of electronic-precision hand tools that have a data output, allowing them to collect information quickly and without errors on the production floor. The data transmits from the tools to a gateway attached to a computer. From there, it can be logged into a built-in database/log, imported into an SPC-application program, directly linked into a SPC program or sent over a network.

The data collection can be used for statistical process control or part attribute tracking, and any job shop that’s interested in or practicing statistical process control needs data collection to plot process performance. Any federally regulated industry supplier – where human safety is concerned – or a company that has a robust and active quality program, like Six Sigma, needs to collect and archive part data. We see many wireless-data collection applications in small job shops serving the aircraft, automotive, biomedical, surgical-implant markets and even farming and heavy-equipment manufacturers.

FSMD: What’s the main thing that DataSure helps job shops to accomplish?

Wilkinson: It helps them collect measurement data relatively error free. The problem with taking data with a paper and pencil or hand entry by computer is that it’s time consuming – you have to put the tool down to write down the measurement. It’s also highly prone to transcription errors. Additionally, it’s difficult to view the data for later transcription if the paper is smeared with coolant or oil, which is typical of job shops. Electronic tools and wireless-data collection eliminates human transcription error and is exceedingly faster, as well. For example, to record a single measurement and document it with paper and pencil takes about 20 seconds, since the tool has to be put down for every measurement and the pencil needs to be picked up. That adds up. If you’re taking measurements for 100 or 200 parts, that takes a lot of time out of your day. And that, of course, is money.

With wireless, on the other hand, a simple button push captures the data. Data collection schemes that use cables are equally as fast as wireless and are about the same price as a wireless system, but they can be messy on the bench and even pose a safety hazard with dangling cables laying very close to forklifts and turning chucks on machining stations.

With the wireless DataSure system, you simply push a button on the tool that you’re holding and the measurement is taken and sent to a database. There’s no transcription error and there’s no time delay – it’s just an all-around better way to collect data. And without data, you can’t do anything about your process. You can’t simply look at your parts to see if they’re in tolerance or not – you have to make a quantitative measurement. But you can use computers to trend that data and make decisions based on whether you are in tolerances. You can then control your process.

FSMD: Can you tell us a bit more about the design features of the system itself, as well any additional benefits that it offers?

Wilkinson: Our DataSure system was designed with the intent to be extremely robust in the presence of industrial noise that you typically find on a shop floor. There are a lot of motors and sometimes welders that create a lot of electromagnetic interference. We designed our system so that it’s relatively immune to that kind of noise. And we did that with a mesh network. The mesh network is self-healing, self-configuring and ensures that the radios will always find a path in the presence of electrical noise. And if you need to expand the network, just add a router.

Once it’s plugged into a power source, the network will find and configure it, making it more robust overall and giving it further transmission reach. The radio network can also be accessed over an IP/LAN connection, too. So if you have a hostile environment like a foundry, where there are hot metals flying around, you can put the radio system down on the shop floor, but then access the network from the safety of a vestibule or a mezzanine-type office. That way, a person can collect data from the tools that are down there measuring the thickness of an extrusion coming out of the foundry, while being out of harm’s way.

This is good for quality inspectors, as well. The LAN connection can be used to remotely log into the gateways that collect all the data. Inspectors and auditors can review the data as if they were on the shop floor, but at the same time, the users don’t know that they’re doing this. It’s a good way to have the inspector see whether the data is being taken as intended, or if it’s being modified or even ignored on the shop floor. This would offer increased accountability, too. In human psychology, the behavior of the individual that’s being observed changes if they know they’re being observed.

Another design goal that we had was to give our system the ability to interface with most known tools in the marketplace. The thinking behind this was that we should not be so bold to assume that everyone in job shops and highly automated production floors would exclusively be using our tools. Rather, we should assume they would be using whatever tools they had, and they might even have a favored SPC program. Therefore, we went with the idea that our DataSure system should interface to any SPC program and any tool that’s available. We accomplished that goal.

Finally, we also store measurements on the radio of the tool itself in case the computer that collects the data goes offline. The tool will then upload its data when the computer powers up again.

FSMD: What features does the software offer?

Wilkinson: One thing is that the software gives the user the ability to name the tool in a descriptive way, so that when the data log comes up, it’s not just a measurement, you’ll know where it comes from. For example, you can label a tool as “Chop saw 52 Jill Smith Operator.” Through that, you have some way of knowing where that data was taken and what tools are still working.

We also have what’s called a virtual multiplexer, and we have an unlimited number of virtual multiplexers in the software. They allow you to group a number of tools, let’s say 10 tools to a multiplexer, into a work cell. And if you have a lot of work cells on the shop floor, you can isolate the data coming from not just a section or the perimeter of the shop, but exactly what cell made a part. And that provides a level of traceability that most application and SPC programs don’t do.

FSMD: How would Joe Employee use the DataSure system?

Wilkinson: Well, the radio pack is connected to a tool, like a micrometer. When Joe makes a part on a screw machine, for example, after the part comes off, it goes into a bucket and he picks it up and measures it to see if it’s in tolerance. Say he wants it to be 0.250 in. in diameter and it’s 0.256 in. in diameter. That might suggest that his tool and cutter head are wearing out and the part is getting larger and larger as it does. Joe would want to see whether his tool is set up correctly, and if he’s producing good parts. If that goes unchecked, he’ll end up building a day’s worth of rejects, and that’s not good for his company.

FSMD: Why would a company want to choose the DataSure system over another company’s quality control/data collection system?

Wilkinson: To reiterate, our system of radios works with all electronic-precision hand tools that have a data-output port and with most SPC software programs on the market. In addition, DataSure works directly with a Microsoft Excel software spreadsheet without having to buy additional hardware. Your wireless-data collection system can be as simple or as complex as needed, without any difference in the setup – just add more radios for more tools. Competitors’ systems function with only their own manufactured tools or a limited selection of tools brands, but our system works with any of them.

Also, job shops serving quality-conscious companies require part and data traceability. Because of this, they need to take and document data that is time stamped, marked and signed to prove the product was made to specification and has traceable accountability. Our system manages all of this.